The Compliant News Room

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There has been much ink spilled and great gnashing of teeth over Facebook’s news tab and the inclusion of Breitbart as a “high quality” news source. I continue to be amazed that social media organizations have moved to help establish clear standards and certification for what counts as a high quality newsroom.

In Enterprise software if you want large companies (like Facebook) to buy your software or services, you will eventually have to get a compliance attestation from a third party auditor that your company follows industry standard practices around code development, testing, deployment, and security. Depending on who your potential customers are there are a cornucopia of potential certifications, SOC2, ISO (lots of these actually), HIPAA for health, PCI for credit cards, FedRAMP for the U.S. Federal government. All of these standards provide you a checklist practices that you have to demonstrate your compliance with, then you find an auditor to come in, look at your books and ask you to prove that you follow your own stated policies.

News rooms are not all that different than software development teams. They produce news content and we produce software through lines of code and configuration. They (should) fact-check articles and software development (should) run automated tests before deploying. News organizations (should) have a process to respond to questions of accuracy and (should) issue redactions and corrections when their stories are demonstrated to have factual issues; software shops have vulnerability disclosure programs and (should) have the ability to provide patches and remediations for security flaws. Conceptually there are broad parallels between these two systems, we have functioning systems to provide compliance attestations for software, it should be possible to do the same for journalism.

It is important to note that none of the things I’ve mentioned have any real bearing on the content of the journalism. It should be equally possible for news organizations from every end of a multi-dimensional political, social, economic spectrum to implement practices that demonstrate that the stories they produce are researched, fact checked and published responsibly. There are certainly no shortage of journalism schools and professors who educate journalists, I’m sure they would be interested to establish some standards.

If, and I know a big if, we had this in place we would have a tremendous boon to the news consumption ecosystem. News aggregators of all stripes (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Google News and Search) could all have a uniform standard by which to decide how they are going to label content, based on the rigor of its production. If you have a specific “News” section, technology companies could make the responsible choice of only listing certified content providers with traffic above a large threshold. If an article is going viral through their network they could put a clear asterisk next to the content; “This article appears to be news, but we cannot confirm their compliance with best practices.”

Yes, this would probably favor the big news providers over smaller ones. But it would also provide an opportunity for news aggregators who say they care about free speech and democracy and the media ecosystem to build tools, support training and development for small news sources to professionalize and raise the bar. Additionally there could be a progressive ladder of practices and standards for organizations of increasing size.

On the plus side, this gives the news aggregators the opportunity to externalize some of their decision making about what is considered news. No longer do they need to get dragged in front of legislative bodies about their bias in news source selection they can say, “we adopted an academic standard over which we had no meaningful influence, we allow third party auditors to assess compliance with that standard and prioritize content from those sources because we care for our users.”

The spread of freedom of speech and democracy depends on an informed public, but an informed public needs well sourced information from respectable sources, not hype and lies produced for the clicks and the lolz.

Written on October 30, 2019